Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 6 Dec 2000

Vol. 164 No. 18

Council of Ministers' Agreement on BSE: Statements.

I am very pleased to discuss this issue in this House today and I am sure that all Senators will contribute in a constructive way to this important matter. The debate allows me to describe, in some detail, the approach taken by the Government in controlling and eradicating BSE, to ensuring that the health of consumers is protected and assuring the quality and safety of our beef. It also provides me with the opportunity to address public concerns in relation to BSE arising from recent events in Europe where a number of issues, including the higher number of cases of the disease in France, the recent confirmation of cases in Spain and Germany and unilateral actions by some countries, have seriously affected consumer confidence in these and other countries. Furthermore, it gives me the opportunity to outline the measures being taken at EU level to deal with this issue.

Senators will be aware that BSE was identified as a disease in cattle when it was first reported in the UK in November 1986. The first case of BSE here was confirmed in January 1989. In that year, a total of 15 cases were confirmed and for the next six years, the number of cases remained at between 14 and 19 per year. From 1996, the number of cases increased and for this year to date, the total number of cases stands at 126 with three further cases detected under the programmes of testing animals from depopulated herds.

Notwithstanding the higher numbers this year, I am confident that the comprehensive range of measures we have in place is proving effective. In the first instance, the overall incidence of BSE continues to be extremely low with a total of 561 cases since 1989 in a cattle population in excess of 7.5 million each year. This compares with a total of more than 177,000 in the UK and a peak of more than 37,000 confirmed cases in 1992 alone in a cattle population of 12 million. To put our position into perspective, the disease incidence here represents 0.0012% of our total cattle population.

The higher number of cases here this year was foreseen in the recent report of the European Union's scientific committee which predicted a temporary increase in numbers for the next couple of years from animals infected prior to the measures introduced in 1996 and 1997 taking full effect. That committee also concluded that the Irish system was optimally stable from 1998, meaning that the measures in place since then prevent the agent of BSE from reinfecting cattle.

Most experts agree that, notwithstanding the temporary increase in the numbers of cases, the increasing age profile of BSE positive animals detected is of more significance. To date, no animals born after 1996 have been detected with BSE, and an ever increasing proportion of infected animals are six years of age or older. This supports the scientific steering committee's conclusion that the Irish control system is optimally stable, and we have the various control measures in place to protect consumers.

From the earliest stages, we have had an extensive range of surveillance and control measures to deal with BSE and these were very significantly revamped in 1996 and 1997 in the aftermath of the announcement of the possible link between BSE and the new variant CJD. The Irish control and eradication system is among the most comprehensive in the world.

These controls which operate at a number of levels have been widely publicised and include the culling and destruction of all herd and birth cohorts of animals infected with BSE; the removal and destruction of SRMs from all bovine and ovine animals and a comprehensive and effective range of measures which ensures that ruminants could not be exposed to rations containing meat and bonemeal.

In addition, all cattle presented for slaughter at meat factories are subjected to an ante-mortem inspection by veterinary officials of my Department. Animals showing signs of ill health which give rise to a suspicion that they may be affected by BSE are returned to the farm, put down and tested for BSE. All casualty and emergency cattle presented for slaughter are, in any event, rapid tested for the disease and carcasses are retained until a test result is received showing that BSE is not present. I will outline later the further measure we will be taking in the light of the conclusions of the Agriculture Council earlier this week.

The events of recent weeks in Europe which gave rise to unilateral actions by France, Spain, Austria, Italy and Germany are symptomatic of the tremendous political pressure being brought to bear in member states to introduce measures which they see as necessary to reassure their consumers. It must be remembered that these concerns were not based on any new information or scientific developments as regards BSE or CJD but rather on a desire to demonstrate that actions were being taken.

It was critical, in the light of these events, that the Council of Ministers should move quickly to re-establish a Community approach to dealing with BSE by adopting a series of supplementary measures to help to restore consumer confidence in beef. In the first instance, the Council met for 17 hours on 20 and 21 November, following which it issued a statement emphasising the wide range of measures already in place to control BSE and noted the importance of effective implementation of these measures. The Council welcomed the Commission's proposal to extend rapid screening tests for cattle at risk and to extend it to categories of cattle aged upwards of 30 months.

The Council also considered the national measures adopted by a number of member states. It was agreed that these would be evaluated by the EU Scientific Steering Committee and a decision would be taken by 30 November either on their admissibility or a further strengthening of Community measures.

The Council reconvened on 4 December to consider further Commission proposals which included the following: a temporary ban on the feeding of meat and bonemeal to all farm animals, a requirement that all animals over 30 months are tested for BSE, a requirement that the current list of specified risk materials be expanded to include the entire intestine of bovines of all ages, a "purchase for destruction" scheme to remove from the food chain all cattle over 30 months which have not been tested for BSE, a flexible handling of intervention to address the fall in producer prices, raising the advances for beef premia from 60% to 80% and requiring the testing from 1 January 2001 of all "at risk" animals from 1 July 2001 for all animals over 30 months.

We have consistently stated that we believe the correct approach to managing this situation is to adopt an EU-wide, science-based approach. This is preferable to and certainly more effective than sporadic, un-coordinated, unilateral actions by individual countries on, at best, dubious scientific grounds. On that basis, we welcomed the pro posals while seeking to ensure our particular concerns were addressed.

At Monday's meeting and following prolonged and intense negotiations, the Council reached a series of conclusions which I believe are critical to protecting public health and restoring consumer confidence in beef at EU and other levels. The conclusions also provided for the introduction of support for the beef market. They covered a wide range of issues among which were the extension of the ban on the use of meat and bonemeal in feed for cattle and sheep to all animal feed on a temporary basis, agreement on a framework for the lifting of national measures by certain member states, agreement to the Commission decision for a rapid BSE detection test for bovine animals over 30 months and the need for Community funds for financing tests, animals over 30 months can go to the food chain only if tested.

The Council noted the proposal to carry out purchases for the destruction of livestock over 30 months in order to provide an alternative outlet for such animals. The compensation payment to producers for such animals would take account of the different types of animals and markets and the measure will attract 70% financing from the European Union and 30% from the national government. The Council also decided that it is essential to introduce intervention, the details of which will be decided at the beef management committee on 12 December 2000. The Council took the view that beef producers are likely to be adversely affected by the market situation and called on the Commission to report on the situation and to make proposals to the Council which undertook to act on these as a matter of urgency. The Council called on the Commission to examine the question of alternative proteins for farm animals and to bring forward any appropriate proposals.

Bearing in mind the divergence of views among Ministers, it was essential that this particular Council reached a successful conclusion and that the full range of issues which had arisen from the most recent BSE crisis were adequately addressed. In my view, the agreement provides an improved framework for protecting human and animal health and restoring consumer confidence.

We now need to finalise the arrangements at EU level and to proceed with implementation of what is agreed. The Minister has already announced his intention to introduce an expanded testing regime at the earliest possible date before the EU do so. There are various logistical and operational aspects to be addressed in putting a major testing programme in place and I am hopeful that these and the financial aspects can be finalised quickly.

As regards the ban on meat and bonemeal in all animal feed, I should clarify the position on this aspect. For many years, we have had a comprehensive range of controls in place to ensure that ruminant animals in Ireland do not have access to feeds containing meat and bonemeal. One of the facts to emerge from recent events in Europe is the difficulty that some member states have had in relation to the implementation of their meat and bonemeal controls. This relates largely to their failure to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination of ruminant feeds in feed mills which were incorporating meat and bonemeal into feed for pigs while at the same time manufacturing ruminant feeds.

In Ireland, meat and bonemeal has been subject to stringent controls both in terms of its production and its use. These controls have been inspected by a range of external bodies, including the FVO and veterinary services of countries to whom we export beef products, all of whom have deemed them to be satisfactory.

As regards production, the controls required that the material used to make the meal meets certain standards and excluded all risk organs known as specified risk materials, SRMs, and that the product was manufactured to approved scientific standards based on time temperature parameters – heating to 133ºC at 3 bar pressure for 20 minutes.

In terms of use, there have been strictly applied controls involving the licensing of any person manufacturing, incorporating, storing or feeding this meal. In addition, manufacturers of feed for cattle and sheep were forbidden from using meat and bonemeal. Non-ruminant feed rations containing meat and bonemeal could not be manufactured on the same premises as ruminant feed.

Full-time Department staff have been based in rendering plants and a series of mission visits by the EU Food and Veterinary Office indicated satisfaction with Irish BSE controls, including those on meat and bonemeal.

Neither the EU Scientific Committee nor the FSAI's BSE sub-committee has recommended a ban on the use of meat and bonemeal for non-ruminant feed. However, and in view of the difficulties being experienced in many other member states which do not have comparable controls to ours and the central role played by the product in the wider BSE issue, the Commission proposed and the Council accepted that meat and bonemeal should be banned from all farm animal feed for six months.

The Minister voted at the Council for this proposal, which will apply across the European Union. However, the difficulties in implementing the proposal here should not be underestimated. Heretofore, some 140,000 tonnes of commercial meat and bonemeal are produced each year. In the short term, animal waste will have to be processed and stored at a significant cost and the policy represents a major potential risk to the environment. This reinforces my view that we need urgently to put in place arrangements for ultimately disposing in Ireland of all BSE material and other animal wastes. In effect, this means thermal treatment facilities of some sort. Without such facilities, we will soon face environmental and waste management problems of an unprecedented scale.

As the Minister said last week, it is nonsensical to expect that we can have the economic and the social benefits of a multi-million pound livestock industry without having suitable arrangements for dealing with the animal waste generated by such an industry. We are the only country in Europe without such facilities. I was heartened by the contributions on this issue from all parties in the Dáil last week. At face value, these suggest that all now accept that incineration facilities are essential. I only hope that this consensus will continue to apply at local level when proposals to deal with this issue are brought forward. One often finds that one is for it nationally but not locally.

We are very pleased it is outside our county.

I would not be one of the people to object in my county.

Details of the "purchase for destruction" scheme have not been fully elaborated. I regret that it has become necessary to consider such a regime given the range of measures we already have in place and our reliance on the livestock sector. However, we will be participating at EU level in the further development of this proposal which will attract 70% financing from the EU.

This policy has to be viewed in the contexts of consumer protection and the market situation. On the one hand, it has been accepted that cattle over 30 months will not be allowed enter the food chain unless they undergo and are negative to one of the rapid tests. On the other hand, there are logistical problems to testing all such cattle in the short term, while there is also reduced demand for beef products. The Commission is accordingly proposing the purchase for destruction of cattle over 30 months which have not been tested and also envisages extension of this programme to tested animals if the market so requires.

The details of the scheme have not been finalised and it is not possible to say at this stage whether it can be limited to certain categories or regions. I might add that we estimate that there are 1.8 million cattle over four years of age in the national herd.

The main focus of the debate will, I expect, relate to food safety and the assurance we can provide to the consumers of Irish beef, both at home and abroad. I have referred the comprehensive range of measures in place in Ireland to ensure the product of Ireland's cattle and beef sector reaches the final consumer with the maximum guarantee as to its safety. It is only by ensuring that correct measures are in place and that they are properly implemented that we can give the necessary assurance about the safety of our product. It is only when the consumer recognises that this is the case, and feels confident in the final product, that the market can be restored to normality.

I emphasise that food safety is an absolute prerequisite for any food producing industry. The Irish beef sector recognises this and has fully embraced and supported the measures put in place over the past years to deal with BSE. There is a lot at stake. Last year beef exports were worth close on £1 billion, excluding European Union export refunds. Direct payments to the sector amounted to £450 million in the year and will increase substantially under Agenda 2000 over the next few years. There are about 100,000 farmers whose livelihoods depend on the industry at primary production level, with a further 5,000 employed in the processing sector.

Following the BSE developments in 1996, Ireland succeeded in regaining all of its major markets throughout the world. We exported to over 60 countries, many of which have sent their experts here to examine our systems on the ground and have found them to be acceptable. Unfortunately, our continued access to some markets, notably Egypt, has become entangled with concerns as regards the BSE situation in Europe. I thank the Egyptian Ambassador for the loyal support he has shown us and for his continued assurances to his Government of the standards of the Irish beef industry. He has been outstanding in the loyalty he has shown Ireland in that regard.

I hope he gave full assurance to the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe.

This is not the time for sniping. This is a much more serious issue. It is beneath the Senator to snipe at this time of crisis but he is consistent.

Those are the facts and the Minister of State should not lose his temper.

Unfortunately, our continued access to some markets, notably Egypt, has become entangled with concerns as regards the BSE situation in Europe. We are making every effort to ensure our continued access to this market as evidenced by the visit by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to Cairo immediately following this week's Council meeting.

I fully accept that our producers are facing particular difficulties and that the sector will suffer disproportionately in the current crisis. The Minister brought this to the attention of his colleagues on the Council this week. We will be seeking to ensure that the undertakings in relation to adequate market support will result in an effective and meaningful intervention arrangement. We will also be pressing the Commission to evaluate the consequences of the current crisis for our producers and to make appropriate proposals to deal with these.

We have a control and eradication system which is among the most comprehensive in the world. It has been examined and endorsed on a number of occasions by the Food and Veterinary Office of the European Commission and others. In addition, Ireland is recognised by the World Animal Health Organisation as having a low incidence of BSE and our cattle have been in high demand in markets throughout the EU and elsewhere. Given our high level of exports, our systems and controls have been subjected to in-depth examinations by a number of the countries to which we export product. We also operate our controls in close association with the FSAI, with whom we are in constant contact. Our arrangements will again be audited by the FVO next week.

Notwithstanding this, we are not complacent as regards BSE. We are open and transparent about the situation and we will take further measures as appropriate to protect consumers and restore confidence. At the same time, the relevant experts and I take some comfort from the fact that the fewer number of BSE cases aged five years or less this year tends to confirm the views of the scientific steering committee that we can expect to see a reduction in the number of cases from 2002. A very clear pattern has emerged in that regard.

It remains the Government's clear objective to eradicate BSE at the earliest possible date. We are fully aware that the protection of the consumer and the well being and importance of the beef industry are at issue. I must emphasise that there is no resistance in the industry to new controls which will improve the situation. It recognises that without consumer confidence the sector has no future. In the meantime, the various controls in place will be strictly enforced and enhanced as appropriate by measures such as the ban on meat and bonemeal and the BSE active surveillance programme to provide appropriate protection to consumers at home and abroad.

I thank the Leader for facilitating this very important debate for which I have been calling for some weeks. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Davern, for giving us a comprehensive overview of the BSE problem.

Without doubt BSE is the biggest national crisis facing this country. Our taxi drivers may have their moans and teachers may lobby about their percentages but, from a national perspective and taking a long-term view, the BSE crisis is the biggest issue facing this Government. I have no doubt that it will cost the country a huge amount of money. So many people's livelihoods depend on agriculture but the most important people in this debate are the consumers, the people who buy the product at home and abroad. Our national Exchequer will lose revenue. I will approach this topic from this angle and that of primary producers this afternoon.

The importance of the beef industry to the economy cannot be understated. Beef accounts for well over 50% of our agricultural output and makes up to 90% of our total agricultural exports. Nowhere else in Europe does beef production form such a vital element of agricultural activity. The fact that Irish beef is accepted throughout the world is a testimony to the quality of our produce. No other beef producing nation has such optimum conditions for rearing quality grass fed beef. Our natural environment gives Irish producers a special place in the beef market. The low fat and high nutritional content of Irish beef, which has been vindicated on several occasions but only recently by Teagasc following research work at Grange, is something of which our farming community can be proud.

Since BSE re-entered the headlines throughout Europe Irish beef has been served a blow. In less than a fortnight cattle prices have fallen by up to 15p per lb. The farming organisations estimate that £600 million has been wiped off the Irish cattle herd. In the interests of cattle farmers Ireland must lead the way in terms of minimising the risk of BSE contamination of our beef.

We are here again discussing the BSE crisis. The consumers are a very important part of this debate. This time the panic has spread in Ireland, France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Fingers are being kept crossed that beef consumption in the UK and Ireland will continue to survive unscathed but I doubt this will be the reality. The effect on cattle prices in Ireland is the same as it was in 1996 which is not so long ago. We all remember the BSE crisis of 1996 because Ireland's dependence on the export market is huge.

In 1996 primary beef prices fell by 15p per lb. but the price of cows did not fall as much. Unfortunately, the price of cows is going through the floor now and prices are lower than at any time during the 1996 period; the price drop has already gone far below 1996 rates. That year prices continued to fall throughout the summer but they did not have the same severe effect as the present price drop. At that time, export refunds were worth 64p per pound, compared with 37p per pound today.

Three or four weeks ago, Dawn Meats was speaking to farmers about the possibility of establishing supplier groups. There are many producer groups throughout the country producing top class beef. The Department and the Minister have urged this from time to time. Cattle were put into sheds this year on the basis that 97p or 98p per pound would be paid. These farmers are facing a very severe winter and spring.

In 1996 the then Minister, Deputy Yates, took the issue of compensation to Europe. We have seen no instance of similar action in this crisis. He got compensation of a slaughter premium of £50 per head. He also got £50 per head in the special heifer premium scheme. That was all additional money. I note the Minister of State waving a sheet at me. However, the reality is that it was extra compensation which the then Minister, Deputy Yates, fought hard for in Brussels and succeeded in getting. That is what we need to put in place to restore confidence in the agricultural industry. Hundreds of farmers are meeting in the Minister of State's constituency and others and they are hugely concerned. An observer at a meeting last night told me of the dejection of farmers at the lack of action in relation to a special compensation package.

The Council will meet to discuss it on 12 December. That is in five days' time.

Senator Hayes, without interruption.

The Minister must spell out the compensation package he has in mind. People know what the drop in income has been and in order to restore the confidence of the agricultural industry, we must spell out to Europe our very special position and compensation needs.

The Minister of State did not open his mouth about that, I note.

The reality is that this is—

I am glad Senator Connor finds the crisis we are facing so funny.

Acting Chairman

Senator Hayes, without interruption.

The Minister, Deputy Walsh, recently announced a package of £4.70 on a suckler cow and a £3 a head special beef premium. This will not compensate for the huge drop in income suffered by the agricultural industry. I know the Minister, Deputy Walsh, cannot be here today. I urge the Minister of State and the Department to do everything to bring in a proper compensation package.

I will refer to some of the other issues raised by the Minister of State in his comprehensive address. I welcome the positive position he has adopted in relation to incineration. The reality is that we have to deal with the 140,000 tonnes. It is up to the Minister of State to move on the incineration issue because this cannot be allowed pile up or be exported. I understand this was welcomed on both sides of the Dáil. Given that the Government has the necessary backing for this action, it should not be afraid to deal with it.

The Minister of State touched on several aspects of the consumer issue. We have failed, no matter what Bord Bia or the Department might say, to spell out to our home consumers, never mind the export market, the safety of our beef. The truth is that the young beef sold across the counter in butchers' shops in Dublin or the country cannot have BSE. However, the ordinary consumers shopping for their Sunday joints this week are worried. They read newspaper headlines such as "Increase recorded in BSE cases expected" and "November's figures worst ever recorded". What are the consumers to think? We have failed, as a nation, to properly explain the safety and high standards of our beef. Across the country, people are changing to alternative foods.

The Minister of State spelled out in his speech that, according to all the research that has been done, the young beef sold in butchers' shops is as safe as it possibly could be. We have failed to tell that to consumers and to alleviate their fears and worries. The Department and the Minister have failed to address those newspaper headlines and the adverse publicity the BSE situation got this week.

The Minister has gone to Cairo to try to convince the Egyptians of the safety of our cattle. I hope we will get some word of how that meeting went before the end of the debate. I am amazed, given the existence of e-mail and faxes, that there has been no word from the Minister. That means there must have been some failure. If the Minister does not succeed in this regard, the Taoiseach should move on it. The record of this Administration in relation to guaranteeing export markets has not been as good as some Senators might tell us. If the Minister fails in this regard – which is quite possible because there has been no indication to the contrary – the Taoiseach should intervene and, if necessary, travel to secure this market. The stock we have in this country needs markets such as Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

We are facing a major crisis. We need to be more open and transparent, rather than have consumers questioning whether we are showing the figures or are afraid of testing. We should not be afraid to give the best meat and produce to our consumers. I know this is a very difficult, tricky and involved exercise. I hope Members on both sides will not use this debate to make political points. I hope the rest of the debate will be constructive and I am delighted it is taking place.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to these statements on BSE. This has been very serious for our cattle population, especially in terms of cattle prices and the livelihoods of farmers. It is important to ensure consumer confidence in our beef.

The deadly seriousness of the BSE disease was brought home once again when it was discovered for the first time in French, German and Spanish cattle. This has led to hysterical consumer reaction in these countries and hurried decisions by their governments to ban certain animal feeds. The potential impact on demand for beef and the implications for Ireland's primary industry have been underlined by the Government's decision to introduce the BSE test for all cattle over 30 months in an effort to assure consumers that the Irish product is safe. This costly exercise is necessitated by specific evidence that bonemeal foodstuffs are responsible for the disease.

The Government has already operated a strict herd slaughter policy along with clinical testing in factories and the disposal of risk material. The additional measures, to test all cattle over 30 months, to remove all cattle over 30 months not tested for BSE from the food chain and the new improved testing methods will go a long way to assure consumers that Irish beef is BSE free. I applaud the Minister, Deputy Walsh, for his swift and decisive action in supplementing the comprehensive range of controls in Ireland by expanding the surveillance control programme for BSE in advance of the EU Commission's requirement to do so. This underlines the necessity to proceed with the utmost care with policies framed at EU and national levels. Policy must be responsive, but it must also be open and transparent, otherwise consumer confidence will not be restored and that will not serve the interests of farmers and other producers.

The EU Commissioner with responsibility for food safety, Mr. David Byrne, has developed a deserved reputation for level headed and careful regulation in this highly sensitive area. The best guarantee that EU policy can respond effectively is to ensure that it is endorsed by member states rather than being pursued in haste at unilateral level. Farmers' representatives have pointed out how vulnerable the industry is to collapses in demand, as indicated by cattle prices. The Government decision to introduce universal testing reinforces the idea that strengthened controls can reassure consumers.

Farming methods have become so industrialised that farmers must not be surprised if successive problems impact on credibility. This area also requires careful regulation to restore the trust of consumers. Some farmers behave irresponsibly, but thank God they have abandoned ways of making quick profits by using growth promoters and such like. It did not look well to see two farmers prosecuted for injecting cattle with illegal substances to enable them secure more compensation. While they got away lightly, it is right that such farmers should be penalised. Heavy fines and penalties should be imposed for such activities.

Scientists and industry spokesmen point out that the number of BSE cases in Ireland is tiny compared to the size of the national herd. The Minister of State said the disease incidence here represents 0.0012% of the total cattle population. This minimal percentage reflects the stringent controls applied over the past four years. The age of cattle is crucial as it allows for testing of the scientific theories about how the disease is prevented. The Minister of State's assertion that cattle born since 1996 have not proved positive to testing for BSE is welcome. It augers well for the future of our industry and exports as it means that we will have no BSE problems in future years.

If that picture were to change we would face a more damaging crisis of confidence. The latest episodes reinforce the case for the urgent introduction of EU and national controls on the basis of strict scientific criteria. EU Agriculture Ministers have agreed to ban the feeding of meat and bonemeal to farm animals in an attempt to halt the spread of BSE. However, when they met in Brussels last Monday night they were at odds about how much compensation farmers should receive for loss of income due to the crisis. The Minister voted in favour of the meat and bonemeal ban, but he told the meeting that the imposition of such a wide-ranging ban would have considerable implications. It is proposed that the compensation payment to producers should take account of different types of animals and markets. This is very important. Previous compensation packages for brucellosis or TB breakouts would not adequately compensate farmers affected by the BSE crisis. Nevertheless, I congratulate the Minster on securing the proposal to 70% fund a compensation package from the EU.

A sudden change in the status of meat and bonemeal presents us with an enormous environmental problem in terms of dealing with the slaughter of animals and with a product that will inevitably be stockpiled. There are no incineration facilities in Ireland for this produce and it is doubtful if sufficient capacity is available elsewhere in the EU. I am pleased to note that the EU Council of Ministers has called on the Commission to examine the question of alternative proteins in animal feed and make proposals in that regard. The replacement of animal proteins will present serious problems, but protein is essential in any animal feed.

Apart from the ban on meat and bonemeal, the Ministers agreed to remove from the food chain all cattle over 30 months which have not been tested for BSE. This is important to ensuring consumer confidence in beef. Beef sales have collapsed and many EU countries have banned meat imports from member states, which will hurt Irish farmers very badly. Given that we produce so much beef and the small size of our population, we must export 90% of our beef production. This makes our beef sector highly vulnerable to market downturns, consequently this crisis has already impacted severely on the Irish beef market and it is expected to deteriorate further. Cattle slaughters have fallen significantly and the backlog of cattle on farms is beginning to take on serious proportions.

This is very serious when one considers the early start to this year's winter. Cattle have been housed in sheds since September because of the very inclement weather. This has never happened before. While fodder stocks were high due to a good harvest, at least 40% of the winter supply has been fed to cattle. If this weather continues it could cause farmers serious problems.

The decision by Egypt, which is Ireland's biggest export market, to suspend import licences on all EU beef was a serious blow to Ireland. However, I was delighted to read the headline in today's newspaper, "Walsh confident Egypt will relent". The article states that the "Minister for Agriculture was confident last night, following talks with his Egyptian counterpart, that Ireland's £200 million beef trade with Egypt will be restored". He is coming home from Cairo today but I am sure he will ensure the restoration of such an important market for our beef industry.

Senator Tom Hayes made a reasonable contribution, but he said the Minister would fail. The Minister has never failed. We congratulated him on the Agenda 2000 negotiations which secured great benefits for Irish farmers and Irish agriculture. This achievement should not be overlooked. The best thing I remember about the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Yates, is his statement that he was in Dublin Airport when he was not there. He is a remarkable man because he can be in two places at the one time. The Minister will definitely tell the truth and he will do a good job to ensure—

We will deal with that later.

The Senator will have his chance shortly.

I hope the Minister of State waits.

It is sad to see the Senator smiling about this issue.

Acting Chairman

Senator Rory Kiely, without interruption.

I want to ensure the Minister of State stays for the full debate.

I am confident the Minister has done good work. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Davern, on his good work, particularly for rural development. They will not let the farmers down in this serious situation.

Consumer confidence is important. When I travel I eat in restaurants and I am delighted to see many good steaks being served. That assures me that people are confident beef is safe to eat, despite this terrible scare.

They are good cuts.

There is no such thing as a bad cut any more. I am confident the Minister will restore the Egyptian market. Although this crisis has affected the price of cattle, which has decreased substantially, I am sure the Minister will ensure that farmers are adequately compensated so they do not feel the pain of this unfortunate crisis which has happened as a result of new cases of BSE in cattle in other EU countries.

We are dealing with this problem adequately. Animals born after 1996 have not proved positive to BSE testing. Testing on animals over 30 months is important to ensure the eradication of this disease and consumer confidence in the beef industry.

Other Senators will be aware that I have taken an interest in this topic since I have been in the Seanad and I have not heard the consumer mentioned so many times as today. I have frequently asked for debates on this issue from a public health point of view, but I did not have any success. We are in a serious situation. When I spoke on this issue a couple of weeks ago I said what Des Geraghty said last night, namely, that the pharmaceutical and computer industries may take wings from here, but the one industry which will stay here is the beef industry. I cannot understand why we have dealt so badly with this situation and with so little transparency or concern for the consumer either at home or abroad.

There is no good blaming other countries for the situation in which we find ourselves. There is no point saying the Egyptian ban would not be in place if BSE infected animals had not been found in Germany. We must look at it from our own point of view because there is no other country in Europe which has more to lose and is losing more than our own.

In 1990 meat and bonemeal were banned in animal feed for ruminants. However, that ban was not enforced strongly enough. I realise we do not know the history of this disease so we are learning as we go along and probably will for the next 20 years. The lack of enforcement of that ban, which led to contaminated bonemeal being made for pigs and poultry and then the subsequent feed, which might have had only one or two grammes of infected bonemeal, being fed to cattle, meant it was 1996 before a proper ban was in place. I do not know how long I have been asking for a total ban on meat and bonemeal, which has now been introduced by our Commissioner, David Byrne. Last week I said he was doing a great job and he deserves all the praise we can give him. He got a brief which was supposed to be easy but it must be one of the most difficult in the Commission.

We must be seen to take this meat and bonemeal issue seriously. It is unfortunate that the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, has a herd of pigs on a farm where there was also a dairy herd and which were fed meat and bonemeal. I am sure the practices on that farm are excellent but, from a publicity point of view, it was appalling as far as consumers were concerned. Only 17 farms throughout the country have these licences. I do not know how many hundred farmers produce pigs, but they must be furious that this small number of people continue to feed meat and bonemeal to their animals because they will now have trouble selling pigmeat.

In 1996 we took the situation more seriously because the UK admitted it had ten cases of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. I was sorry to hear the leader of the IFA say on television that the correlation between new variant CJD and BSE had not been proved. How long did it take us to prove that tobacco smoking caused cancer? If there is a good suggestion it is causing it, we must go along with it until someone tells us otherwise. To try to dismiss that there is any connection is extraordinarily foolish.

I wish the age was given every time we say how many animals have died in a month because animals under 48 months have not died for a long time. One would not expect any animal born after 1996 to be infected. This is an older animal disease, particularly an old cow disease. No one will buy old cow meat because we cannot let it get into the food chain. It is used for mince, burgers and pies, which are the foods the most vulnerable of consumers, children, are likely to eat.

I do not know what we will do with this mountain of meat. While the purchase for destruction scheme is good for animals over 30 months, we must remember this will be applied across Europe and if we start killing everything over 30 months at the same time, we will have an appalling glut of meat in Europe. Perhaps the Department, when it is in discussions, could concentrate on the animals most likely to be at risk, such as those which were given feed in the early 1990s, and try to get rid of the old cows which are at the end of their useful life. If they prove to have been infected we should test their progeny. We must do this in a logical manner, otherwise there will be a huge glut of meat which cannot be frozen and put into intervention. We must apply this measure rationally.

The Enfer test, which this country established, is excellent. This test is quick and, if applied within four hours of the animal being slaughtered, it will indicate whether the animal was infected. We must consider what to do within abattoirs or meat plants. If one animal is infected, what will be done about subsequent animals and the machinery which has been used on them? What will be done with the saws? We must take this issue into account because it matters more to us than anywhere else in the world. If we do not take deal with the matter, we will suffer most.

The Enfer test is very good but it only detects animals which are infected and animals which are likely to show the disease within three months. It will not indicate any more than that; therefore we must encourage more immediate research in this area. There is an excellent unit in UCD where Dr. Mark Rogers should have all the support he needs. This is vital. What progress is being made in testing live animals, which is very important? We cannot wait for others to deal with this issue. It is a pity we did not introduce this test earlier. The Swiss introduced a similar test during the summer which shows prions, called prionics. They are now six months ahead of us. It is unfortunate that we are not dealing adequately with this issue which is so important to us.

The problem is that the Enfer test is designed for older animals. It is not designed for young animals, a factor which we must keep on researching. I am pleased that we are eventually beginning to test fallen animals. We must ask if these animals fell because they were staggering and if that is why they broke their legs. It was very difficult for anyone who discovers they have BSE on their farm, despite the compensation scheme. However, we must establish what an animal dies from; the farmer cannot say the animal had pneumonia and died. All animals must be tested and we must establish what they died from if we are to restore consumer confidence.

I do not have cattle or even diseased old cows, but I believe the scheme which is being offered is generous. We should not just talk about controlling this disease – we must eradicate it. We can do this. We are an island nation and we can definitely get co-operation from Northern Ireland to tackle this issue.

The Senator may recall that Dr. Paisley called them regional cattle.

We must try to eradicate this disease.

There are unfortunate reports about other methods of transmission. Vertical transmission has been almost ruled out because, where this transmission to the calves was suggested, the cows were so diseased they would have transmitted anything, or there is the possibility that the calves when young got meal that was affected. I believe we can dismiss that theory. There is a report in today's edition of The Irish Times that the EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Dr. Franz Fischler, has scientific confirmation that BSE can be transmitted when the excrement of infected animals enters the water table. Given that we have been burying animals – we are aware of the drama in the west where an animal had to be dug up – we must research this aspect immediately. We must research whether prions can be distributed in ground water. This is a dreadful matter and we cannot let that statement stand.

There is also the possibility of further mutations. It was reckoned that a mutation within a cow which got into meat and bonemeal and the feed chain in the early 1970s started the problem. I do not know if this is true but I suppose it is as good a theory as that of scrapie. Any such statements are serious, particularly if they come from the EU Commissioner. We should have people checking on the sources of these statements because many animals have been buried throughout the country in the past four years. When these animals were buried, it was thought there would be no problem. If these statements are true, it is a very serious matter. We must refute these statements if there is evidence to do so. If the statement is true, we must carry out research to see what can be done to clean up the ground water.

We cannot just have a PR exercise. This is such a serious issue that we must tackle it as forcefully as possible. It is important to remember also that it is not just an Irish or European problem. When the UK exported meat and bonemeal to the Continent, a considerable amount of it was packaged and distributed internationally. However bad the problem may be for the developed world where there is more than enough to eat, imagine what it will be like in under-developed countries if it gets into their herds. The outcome will be astonishing.

Or even more developed American countries.

This is a most serious situation. We must eradicate the problem on this island, not control it. When we begin to test these cattle, the numbers will increase for a few years. However, this will mean short-term pain for longer-term gain. Old cows are the real problem at present. We must begin to deal with this issue by enforcing the legislation. We must appoint more environmental health officers and Teagasc staff to deal with this problem. This is a very important industry which is seriously damaged at present. We must take the lead in dealing with this serious issue.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am pleased to have an opportunity to discuss the whole beef industry, particularly the BSE issue. I was very interested in what Senator Henry said because I am aware of her great concern in relation to this issue, particularly from the point of view of public health. Her contribution was both consistent and enlightening.

There is no doubt the beef industry is vital to our economy. Some 50% of agricultural output comes from the beef industry, of which we export 90% to approximately 55 or 60 countries throughout the world. That gives an indication of the importance of the beef industry. It is because of that importance that we must take the issue so seriously.

Senator Henry is correct that containing or controlling BSE is simply not good enough. We must get rid of it for once and for all and not have a repeat of what has been happening with TB for so many years. That is simply not on. We must face up to the reality that if we adopt that approach, we will not have a beef industry in five years' time.

The Minister of State outlined the history of BSE as far as we know it. It was first recorded in the UK in 1986, while the first case was recorded in this country in January 1989. The degree to which BSE has been monitored in Europe indicates that the incidence of the disease is by far the greatest in the UK. I understand that there have been approximately 177,000 cases of BSE in the UK out of a herd population of 12 million. In this country there have been in the region of 560 cases out of a herd population of 7.5 million. Other countries have also recorded cases of the disease.

I am concerned about the accuracy of the figures relating to the incidence of the disease. Senator Henry referred to "fallen" animals. Why do such animals fall? Do we have accurate knowledge of the real situation that obtains in other countries? The current BSE crisis has come to the fore mainly because of problems in France and Germany. How accurate are the figures emanating from those two countries?

Regardless of difficulties being experienced in other countries we should not try to ignore our responsibilities, particularly in view of the fact that Ireland is a major exporter of beef. Given that our agricultural and food industries and the economy in general are extremely dependent on beef exports, we must eradicate BSE once and for all. The quicker we do so the better.

The measures adopted in this country in relation to combating BSE are, by any standard, quite stringent. One of the best moves we made was to ensure that when a case was reported the entire herd from which the animal came and its cohorts were destroyed. That was a very drastic but positive step. Its effectiveness is borne out when one considers the incidence of BSE recorded in the UK this year. In the region of 90% of the cases recorded in the UK during 2000 were from herds in which there had been outbreaks of BSE in the past. The action to which I refer is what is required in order to eliminate the disease.

I was interested by the call made last evening by the chief executive of the Food Safety Authority for all cows over four years of age to be destroyed. That would be a drastic move but the scientific evidence and information available – limited though they may be – show that we have not had a case of BSE in an animal born after the ban on the use of meat and bonemeal was imposed. It was on that basis that Dr. Wall of the Food Safety Authority made his proposal, which deserves serious consideration because drastic action is needed if we are to overcome this disease. I am not suggesting that we should kill all animals over four years of age but we should give careful consideration to Dr. Wall's remarks.

I concur with Senator Henry's observation that there is a need for further research. I accept that considerable research is being carried out into BSE but it is not enough. We are not getting results, we do not understand the disease or how it is transmitted and we do not know how to deal with its aftermath. Several Members referred to a case in Galway where an animal infected with the disease was buried. At the time in question, the burying of that animal appeared to be the right thing to do.

It was the traditional method.

That is correct. The farmer spread lime in the burial pit and used the proper utensils in accordance with general practice.

There is no doubt that animals infected with BSE must be slaughtered and incinerated. Anybody who says that we cannot incinerate them is living in cloud-cuckoo-land and engaging in pure buffoonery. We must build an incinerator in this country in order to allow us to control the disease. I will not contemplate any arguments that suggest otherwise. We will make no progress if we allow the buffoons to emerge victorious on this issue. It is time people realised the seriousness of the BSE crisis and the importance of the beef industry to the economy.

Public health is the most important aspect of this issue. It is particularly important that anybody who consumes beef or any form of food can do so confident in the knowledge that they will not experience any adverse effects. All food must be treated in the same way. Problems exist vis-á-vis the consumption of beef which have arisen as a result of spurious claims, questionable scientific research and irrational media coverage. People should be cautious about what they say when discussing this issue. We do not want to scare members of the public and give them the impression that their health is in great danger, particularly if that is not the case. That is why it is so vital, as Senator Henry pointed out, that further research is carried out. We must ensure that people report on this matter in a proper and constructive fashion.

I welcome the moves announced at the Council of Ministers' meeting earlier in the week. The European Union is going in the right direction but we need to go further. I accept the Minister of State's comment that the EU wants member states to move as one on this issue. However, I am not prepared to wait for Europe on it and I believe we must move on it ourselves. We must ensure that people across the globe can buy Irish products, confident, in so far as is possible, in the knowledge that they are safe. I do not believe that it can ever be stated that any product is 100% disease free. However, in so far as is possible, we must state that Irish products are safe.

There are a number of further issues on which I wish to comment. I am concerned about the attitude of the EU Commission to the measures put forward at the Council of Ministers' meeting. Does the Commission intend to implement these measures in full?

If we are to address this disease and the problems associated with it in a serious matter, we must take into account all the measures to which Members have already referred. However, we must also ensure that the industry survives this crisis in a way which will allow it to continue to operate. In my opinion the beef industry is about to be affected by a serious shock with which we must be prepared to deal. We must bring producers, processors and consumers together to formulate a course of action because everyone has a stake in this matter.

I am sure the Senator intends no pun in his use of the word "stake".

I intend no such pun.

I suggest that a tripartite approach must be adopted. It is vital that compensation should be paid to producers on foot of the difficulties they are experiencing at present. Those difficulties are not of their own making. Having said that, however, we must ensure that rogue farmers are removed from the food production process in Ireland. People who inject their cattle or tamper with them in any way—

Rogue cattlemen.

Rogue Ministers.

—should not be allowed to produce food ever again. If we do not adopt a serious approach to this matter, the perception will develop in other countries that we are not serious about eradicating BSE. Our competitors will use whatever means they can to undermine confidence in Irish produce.

Meat and bonemeal should be banned totally and permanently for ruminants and non-ruminants. This will present us with a problem of disposal added to the problem of disposing of slaughtered animals. Incineration is the only way to dispose of this waste material and we must move in that direction. However, until we have adequate incineration facilities we will be faced with the problem of rehandling the increased volume of waste material.

Extra testing will reveal more cases of BSE. The increased number of cases in the past 12 months was to be expected but the number of cases will double or even triple in the next two or three years. What are we going to do with waste material in the interim? Other countries will have to dispose of their own waste. As beef producers we must take responsibility for the disposal of waste material from the beef industry and not ask others to do it for us. Ireland is a major beef producer and must act as such.

We must move beyond the measures being proposed and implemented at present. We need more research and information and we need to incinerate our own waste material.

All Members wish this debate was not necessary. We are discussing a national crisis in one of our most vital industries. There are 100,000 beef producers in the country and the trade is worth hundreds of millions of pounds in export earnings. I am reluctant to use the word disaster to describe the present situation. I hope it will not get worse.

Ireland has introduced some of the best and most comprehensive measures in the world to deal with BSE. We took those measures in 1996, on the initiative of the then Minister for Agriculture, Deputy Ivan Yates. The same procedures were not followed in the other EU member states. Most of those states were in denial about BSE in their own territories and took little or no action. The inaction of France, for example, a country with a huge agricultural sector, was disgraceful. Germany, although a powerful industrial country also has a large agricultural sector. That country was also in denial with regard to BSE. Other EU countries had instances of BSE but they did not wish to admit this was the case and they did not introduce procedures for dealing with the disease. A BSE animal has been allowed to get into the food chain in France and this has triggered the current crisis.

We are the major sufferers from this crisis and we must take every possible step to reassure consumers. I join in the condemnation of the sections of the media which are interested only in scaring people. A food scare story is a great story for the section of the media which has no moral qualms about what it says. I read recently that customers in supermarkets in Italy even avoid the meat counters, so greatly have their fears been aroused by media comment.

The problem is a serious one and I compliment the Government on the steps it is taking to deal with it. However, the position of the Minister for State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, is embarrassing. The Minister of State has done a good job. In the last three years he has toured the country promoting food quality assurance schemes. Nevertheless, he has been found to have a farm – and I am sure he farms very progressively – which uses meat and bonemeal. The Minister of State has done nothing illegal, but a terrible message has been sent to the country and to consumers. If the Minister of State had the true interest of the industry at heart he would leave his office of his own volition. If he is unwilling to do that he should be removed from office by the Taoiseach. This is a harsh thing to say but we are in a drastic situation. Such an action is one of the harsh and costly measures we must take. As part of the cost of this crisis someone whose name is, unfortunately, embarrassing to the industry should take action to reassure the consumer.

Like the crisis of 1996, this one impacts most of all on farmers. I am a farmer myself. Like most of the Members taking part in this debate I was elected to this House on the Agricultural Panel. We must be cognisant of the interests of farmers. In 1996 I was part of an Administration which put in place two major measures and drew down from the EU 850 million in one tranche and more than 550 million in another in a Europe-wide scheme to deal with the BSE crisis. We were fighting a lone battle for funding at that time. Britain did not make a good case for funding at the Council of Ministers, nor did France and Germany who denied they had a problem. Ireland single handedly made a successful case for funding. More than £400 million, including £75 million from the Exchequer, was paid in compensation to Irish farmers.

The current crisis will cost Irish farmers more than that of 1996. The Minister of State made no mention today of a compensation package for farmers, except to say the question will be dealt with at the Council of Ministers meeting on 12 December. Will the Government insist that Irish farmers receive compensation similar to what they were paid in 1996 when 75% of losses were compensated for? Is it the policy of the Department to seek that level of compensation, and how confident is the Minister of State that it will be granted? The Minister will do most of the negotiating but the Minister of State will be there too.

He will do his usual good job.

A new slaughter scheme was introduced earlier this year which pays approximately £22.60 for each animal slaughtered and mostly affects slaughterings which started on 1 September. Does the Minister of State agree that payment should be increased to £100? I hope he will reply to this question. Last September and October 60% of the special beef premium was paid and 40% remains to be paid. Will the Minister bring forward another 30% of those payments and pay it before Christmas to all farmers who are entitled to it? Neither the Minister nor any official in the Department has made such a promise since the crisis began. Will the Minister ensure that much is done as a gesture to people who have suffered a serious financial loss?

If there is to be a destruction scheme for cattle aged 30 months or older, will the Minister give a guarantee that farmers will receive 100% compensation for the animals? The suggestion from Brussels is that 60% or 70% will be paid and each member state should make up the difference. However, the bottom line is that if animals aged over two and a half years are to be removed or destroyed, farmers should receive 100% compensation for them.

Farmers are part of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, which included a promise regarding a revision of the valuation of reactor animals. There has not been a meaningful revision of the price of such animals for many years. The revision was promised last February and it was to be completed by September. However, there has not been a word about it from the Department since then. In the factories, a reactor cow is now almost worthless. The Department pays a predetermined amount of compensation, but the price in factories is almost worthless. Given that many other groups are striking for increases that are entirely outside the PPF, it is time that a promise made to the farming community under the programme was delivered. It is a small issue and I ask the Minister of State to deal directly with it and other matters in his reply to the debate because farmers want fair value.

A food quality scheme review group was set up under Professor Joe Buckley this time last year. It was initiated by the Minister of State's good colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe, and it was charged with reviewing schemes that are currently in operation in the light of future requirements of consumers and the food industry. A major report was to be produced and it was due to be published this month. It may have been given to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe, but I would like to see it. Is the Minister of State now too embarrassed to publish it? Where is the report? Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Davern, will indicate when it will be available and if he, the Minister, Deputy Walsh, or the Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe, will publish it.

Would the Senator also like a list of what I had for breakfast?

I welcome the comprehensive address by the Minister of State, Deputy Davern, in the absence of the Minister, Deputy Walsh. I compliment the Minister of State on his full and detailed presentation which was—

Fulsome, surely.

—also to the point. It was a serious contribution and it was taken as such by most Members, with one or two exceptions. There is no such thing as a political BSE animal. If we represent an industry, we must do so together. It is fair to say that the views expressed by Members were based on seriousness and concern.

It is clear that BSE has serious consequences, which include the potential to cause serious human disease and health and welfare issues for animals and farmers and a serious economic impact. In relation to serious human disease, the nature of the illness caused, new variant CJD, and particularly its ability to manifest itself in young people, is devastating in the cases to date. The extent of the disease, which may take years if not decades to develop, cannot be guessed at this stage. Consequently, preventative measures must be taken. I compliment the Minister in this regard and although Members' contributions will vary, I hope that aspect will be welcomed. I listened with keen interest to the excellent contributions of Senators Tom Hayes, Henry, Rory Kiely and Gibbons.

Regarding the serious health and welfare issues for animals and farmers, while only the occasional cow in a herd is affected by BSE, the requirement, in the interests of the public and consumers, to slaughter the whole herd has devastating effects on the welfare of other animals but also on the state of mind, health, welfare and finances of the members of the family farm.

In terms of the potentially serious economic impact of BSE, the policy of slaughtering the whole herd has a substantial cost in terms of the State's finances. However, this cost pales in comparison to any loss of trade in a £1.5 billion beef industry that is over sufficient by 90%. Consumers abroad have competitive choice in the marketplace. If we are to be successful, we must match and exceed that choice through a quality product that is safe.

While the consequences of BSE are evident, remedies are not clear. However, at this juncture, consumer safety and health must be the only consideration in dealing with BSE. The loss of income for farmers must pale in comparison because there will be no industry if consumer confidence is absent. This week, the EU Ministers for Agriculture announced some measures to deal with BSE. These include testing all animals over 30 months of age for evidence of BSE and the exclusion of all animals over 30 months that are untested or prove positive. They also involve the exclusion of meat and bone meal from all ruminant and non-ruminant animal diets, including pigs, poultry and fish.

It is worthwhile examining the impact of these measures, for example, the testing of slaughtered animals aged over 30 months. The measures will result in increased costs for farmers at production level through processors, retailers and consumers. These costs are estimated at approximately £20 per animal, but they do not include the knock-on costs of the transportation of samples or staffing. However, in the context of the risk to humans from a lethal disease that may not be expressed for years, it is necessary to incur these costs.

It is also necessary to incur costs in the interests of animal health and welfare and also, ultimately, in the interests of the economy which is still dependent on this sector. While many other sectors add value to imported materials, the agricultural sector is largely based on indigenous resources. Apart from health considerations, which take precedence, the sector must be protected because it is such a valuable contributor to the national commercial interest.

While most people will agree with the proposed measures, some, including me, may ask if they go far enough. Is it sufficient to test only animals that are 30 months or over? Current slaughter trends obtained from the industry suggest that over 60% of cattle at slaughter are over 30 months while 40% of steers and heifers are under 30 months. These figures exclude older animals such as cows and young bulls slaughtered at 16 to 17 months. The net effect of a 30 month slaughter policy will be that a potential customer in the butcher's or supermarket will find that up to 40% of meat will be untested for evidence of BSE. This will cause further confusion. Also in the meat industry, it is regrettable, but a fact, that where there is provision for an exclusion or exemption, there is an opportunity for exploitation and abuse.

A number of references have been made this afternoon to rogue farmers, bad practices, malpractice and so on. Such farmers have to be rooted out – they have no place in food production and in farming. Whatever steps are necessary should be taken now. I have long proposed sterilisation of that land forever as a penalty.

Without all animals committed to the food chain being tested for BSE at slaughter, how will the customer or an inspector be able to ascertain with certainty that a cut of meat in a retail outlet came from an animal that was under the age limit for testing? To give further public assurance, to avoid loopholes and to promote trace back, I suggest that every bovine animal entering the food chain should be tested and found negative for BSE. We have to go all the way.

I acknowledge, however, that no test is 100% sensitive and specific in identifying all positive and negative cases. Unfortunately, some very rare cases, although negative, will test positive; worse still, some cases that are positive will test negative. Therefore, the test itself must be supported by other measures. I also recommend that testing be supported by an intensive ante-mortem inspection for evidence of clinical abnormality. I am well aware there is ante-mortem inspection but it has to be intensified and moved on.

I have the utmost confidence in the Minister, Deputy Walsh, and the Ministers of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe and Deputy Davern, regarding the banning of meat and bonemeal from diets and I will leave it at that. This country has gone a long way in the interests of public health by a slaughtered out policy. In addition, the specified risk material regulation, the so-called SRM, in force since 1997 and amended in 2000 has ensured a substantial measure of public health protection by removing BSE risk materials from the food chain by rendering and exporting them for incineration. These materials include the brain, spinal cord, spleen, eyes, tonsils and ileum which are removed from slaughtered animals at all ages. Other offal deemed non-risk has been processed, rendered and fed to some non-ruminant animals as meat and bonemeal.

The second measure announced by EU Ministers for Agriculture, that no meat and bonemeal will be fed to any food production animal, must be welcomed. This decision leaves no opportunity for equivocation or different standards which again would cause public confusion. That all animals entering the food chain will have no meat and bonemeal included in their diet will add considerably to public assurance.

Incineration is a further important aspect on which I called for a debate this morning. There is a disquieting consequence of the above mentioned decision in that a way must be found to dispose safely of a significant proportion of each animal slaughtered, that is, offal. Collectively, these proportions are enormous. In simple terms, for every three cattle slaughtered, there will be approximately one tonne of offal to be disposed of. From the annual kill of about two million animals, there is about two thirds to three quarters of a million tonnes of offal or 140,000 tonnes of rendered material to be dealt with. It is not appropriate to put such organic materials into landfill dumps to the detriment of water supplies from leachate.

It is time to acknowledge the suitability of incineration over other methods as a means of waste disposal. The public has set its mind against incineration. It is a fact that modern incineration is a relatively clean industry where incinerators comply with industry standards set by the EU and the EPA. There is relatively no risk from an incinerator that is properly planned, constructed and controlled, with its operations monitored to those standards. The risk to the environment from disposal by burial is far greater.

The practice to date has been to export SRM material for disposal by incineration abroad. By expecting other jurisdictions to solve Irish problems, we are failing as citizens of the world and we are failing the environment. We cannot be environmentally isolationist any more than we can be commercially isolationist. By depending on others, we are not in control as we can or might be expected to be, as a sovereign State in our own right. As a nation, we should take responsibility.

We have to support the measures being taken and go further. In the context of BSE, no cost can outweigh the benefit of protecting public health and the value to the economy of the beef sector which is under siege from a disease contributing significantly to public health and consumer fears and concerns. The obligation of the media is to be correct and factual and not to scare with frightening headlines. I commend Mairead McGuinness on her contribution which is exceptionally good at all times.

I call Senator Quinn.

On a point of order, I understand the leaders of the various groups speak first.

That is correct.

I presume you would call speakers on the basis of proportionality at that stage. There are two groups on this side, the Fine Gael group and the Independent group. The Fine Gael group is double the size of the Independent one. I presume it would be a ratio of 2:1. I am sorry to cross Senator Quinn, who is one of my favourite Independent Senators from his particular university panel.

Standing Orders confer on the Cathaoirleach the right to call Senators to speak and I call Senator Quinn in accordance with the long established rota with which I know Senator Taylor-Quinn is quite familiar.

I suggest that proportionality is a hallmark of our democratic system. Maybe you would review your ruling in the future. A long established rota is one thing, but proportionality is a hallmark of our democratic system.

The time for this debate is limited.

I invite you to review your ruling—

I call Senator Quinn.

That, I presume, has nothing to do with the height difference.

I would graciously hand over to Senator Taylor-Quinn but I would be afraid to establish a precedent which might be maintained by somebody else at a future time.

Thank you for your assistance, Senator Quinn.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, to the House. I was delighted to hear Senator Callanan speak of the need to do something and the willingness to say no price is too high to do whatever we have to do. Senator Gibbons said something similar. To be behind a butcher's counter and on the shop floor and to have a customer come up to you and say they trust you – it does not matter what business you are in – is such a valuable asset. Picture what would happen if that customer turned up and said they had lost trust and confidence in you. If you say that about a shopkeeper or a butcher, picture what would happen if that was said to a nation.

That is why I want to focus on the scale of the customer reaction in Germany and France to the BSE crisis. It is very instructive to concentrate on the scale. We are here today because of an abuse of trust by the authorities in those two countries. They overplayed their hand recently in reassuring their customers that their countries were BSE free. They said it over and over and when the problems were occurring on these islands they said they did not have that difficulty and they reassured their customers. Look at what has happened now that they have lost that assurance. When it was found they were not BSE free, the reaction of customers was exactly as I described. They reacted savagely, not just because of the risk of BSE but they felt they had been had, lied to and misled. They lost confidence and trust in the Government. They felt misled by the previous assurances not just of that Government but of a number of Governments which had not trusted them with the whole truth.

Those Governments are now paying the price of that lack of and abuse of trust, and so are we, because we will all be involved in trying to repair this damage for a very long time to come. There is no more point in blaming customers for overreacting than there is in blaming Governments whose abuse of customers' trust gave rise to that reaction. The water has flowed under that bridge now, and there is nothing we can do about it other than cope with the consequences. That is what we must do now, and that is why I am glad we are having this debate. This is the time to do so.

In coping with the consequences, it is useful to bear in mind causes. The lesson is very clear. One cannot play around with the customer. That is the one message we must get around here. One cannot go halfway down the road with the customer. If one is lucky enough to have the trust of customers, one abuses that trust at one's peril. That is how we should approach this matter from now on. Far from wringing our hands about the far-reaching effects of the new measures, or seeking to water them down, we should welcome them with open arms. We must do that.

I am glad to hear the words being used in this House today, and to see the sense of realism that has prevailed in this country over the past few days. For the first time since the BSE crisis first reared its head in March 1996, we have clear, unambiguous and decisive measures on the table.

I pay tribute to the Council of Ministers, including our Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, for their promptness and courage in facing up to the problem. They saw clearly the right road to pursue and they took it. We should be as clear-sighted as they in facing up to the consequences of the new rules. That worries me because, as a nation, we have not always done that. We have had a habit of fudging and dodging and hoping that the rules do not apply to us.

The ban on animal feed will certainly cause Ireland enormous problems which will be extremely costly to resolve. We heard that spoken about today. Overnight what was a relatively valuable asset has been transformed into the very opposite – a serious liability. It is not just that we do not have the asset anymore. We now have a liability. We are faced with creating quickly a mechanism for disposing of hundreds of tonnes of animal by-products in circumstances where the only practical option is to destroy the material, presumably by incineration. Given the way we, as a nation, have managed to dodge the incineration problem for almost 30 years, it will be quite a trick to whistle up incinerators overnight. I am not sure how we are going to do it. One can already hear sounds in this House about the difficulties that will pose. Further pressure for incineration will come from the new need to dispose of complete carcases because, as we apply the policy of killing animals over 30 months that have not been tested and not cleared for BSE and these measures present us with massive problems of compliance, there is a danger that some people will feel we should duck them or that we should dilute them or avoid them in some way. The best future for the beef industry in Ireland and right across Europe is to carry out these measures fully and faithfully and to the letter of the law because, as the Council of Ministers rightly decided, whatever the scientific niceties may be, the hard facts of the marketplace dictate that only these drastic measures will reassure customers.

If I have mentioned customers six or more times in this discourse, it is because it is crucial that we recognise that, while we can pass any laws we like and say anything we like by way of reassurance, if we are not trusted, if customers do not believe us, it is all useless. It is only by grasping this nettle that we can rebuild the confidence that customers must have if we are to succeed in the beef industry.

The scale of this crisis makes this a European crisis more than a national one. We should be pleased that, for the first time, the problem is being dealt with on a pan-European scale rather than being restricted to a handful of countries. We should not go down the road of blaming other countries for where we are now, especially since it was in these islands that the BSE problem first occurred four years ago. Equally, at local level, we should regard this as a national crisis rather than purely an agricultural one. I am not sure that that is quite understood in other spheres yet, where people think it has nothing to do with them because it relates to farmers. It really is a national crisis and it is a very serious one. The scale of money we will have to spend as a nation at this stage is vastly different from the cost of our commitments only one week ago. That has occurred quickly, and it has caught us by surprise. Whatever it costs to put this right we should pay, and pay gladly, rather than taking what I would call the ultimately suicidal route of half measures that do not succeed in fulfilling their objectives.

This is not a time for heads on a plate. It is a time for cool heads. We must find a way to handle this. That is why I have been rather disturbed at some of the point-scoring and politicking we have heard over the past few days. This is a time for the country to pull together as a unit in the face of one of the most serious threats to our national prosperity in this generation. It is not a time for sectoral bickering nor for political infighting. It is a time to grasp the nettle. We must do that firmly and with commitment.

I welcome the Minister and I welcome this debate. What I have heard gives me some assurance that there is an understanding of the importance of the crisis.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe, to the House. It is important that this debate should be balanced and allow people to highlight what they see as problems resulting from the BSE crisis that has hit not just Ireland but the other countries of Europe.

The problems have been outlined and we have been talking about the measures we should and should not take. We should take immediate steps to ensure customer confidence.

We have spoken about the destruction of animals over a certain age. We should realise that much of our stock is too old. I refer particularly to suckler cows in certain areas which attract subsidies, for example, a cow that produces a calf every year. That is what concerns some farmers. We must look at the bigger picture and enable farmers to get into younger stock rather than keeping cows of eight, ten or 12 years of age. That will eliminate the problem.

We must look at change in a wider light. All stock over 30 months must be tested for BSE. That is right. However, we must consider the disposal of stock over a particular age if we want to ensure that farmers get into younger stock which carries less risk of BSE.

As a farmer and from speaking to other farmers I know that we must look at the question of compensation, though not necessarily monetary compensation. For example, farmers who have young heifers should be enabled to take one calf from that heifer at two to two-and-a half years old and the heifer will be prime beef in the market. That would ensure stock numbers can be maintained and it would enable the removal of much of the older stock from the herd. There must be an incentive to enable farmers to reduce the age of the stock.

There is also the problem of stock disposal. If testing is introduced and it is shown that a number of stock have to be disposed of we will have to consider incineration. Local authorities everywhere have tried to do something about waste disposal. Waste disposal is fine but a percentage of it will have to be done by incineration. As public representatives we are told that nobody wants an incinerator in their region, but we have to look at the bigger picture and ensure incineration is introduced as a means of disposing of the unwanted stock.

We must have rapid test results. If cattle are going to the factories and are being tested, the results must be available without delay. This may require more training and expertise, and the employment of more technicians and veterinary officers in the factories.

We must look also at the position of farmers who have sick animals and cases of BSE. In some instances farmers with a sick animal called out the vet but in many cases the vet could not identify the problem. It was only after further expertise was brought in and tests were carried out that the problem was identified as BSE. When an animal shows any sign of ill health a vet should be called as a safety precaution.

The question of depopulation of the herd will have to be looked at carefully. There are many cases where beef units being set not to one but to two and more farmers where stock can be together for part of the year and taken back to the farms for summer grazing. That issue will have to be considered. More attention will have to be paid to where stock is moved to for winter feeding. In the event of a breakdown we must know exactly where the stock have been, the adjoining farms and the risk to adjoining farmers. The removal of stock from one farm may not be sufficient.

Reference has been made to the banning of meat and bonemeal. It must be banned. Inspectors must be put in place to check that meat and bonemeal is not used in feed compounds. Only when such checks are in place can we guarantee that it is not being used. The bag containing the rations may state the ingredients used but that may not be good enough for the customer. We must be able to say that not alone is the manufacturer stating the ingredients in the feed but it must also be subject to on-the-spot regular checks by Department officials.

The slaughter of BSE stock should be carried out at only one designated factory at some location in the country. Customers must be certain that BSE stock was not slaughtered at the factory from which their meat comes.

To address the age aspect we may have to provide that if stock is not disposed of before reaching five to seven years old there may be no compensation. In the event of such a threat farmers would move to dispose of stock before that age.

The loss to farmers because of this scare has been substantial. Many farmers have bought stock on the assumption that cattle would be 95p per pound plus and possibly £1 per pound. This was the price predicted by the experts but farmers will have to accept much less, possibly £100 a head less. How can those farmers remain in farming if the losses are that substantial?

We must ensure that the product the customer buys in the butchers is of the highest quality. The customer has the final call. Whether we like it not the customer is right. When the customers buy meat, they must be certain that everything is above board.

I congratulate the Minister and his officials on the swift action taken to ensure the confidence of the consumer is maintained. The customer must be sure that what they are buying is of the highest standard. For many years this country has been known to produce quality meat, with the rare exception of an odd cowboy. For those found guilty of misdemeanours in relation to the production of stock nothing is too severe, including the loss of headage payments for a number of years. The threat of a lifetime ban would ensure that no one got involved in any wrongdoing in the production of beef.

This is a very serious debate and I am delighted we have time for it today. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe. In view of the fact that he is in the firing line one must admire his guts in coming here. When his senior Minister is in the line of fire he manages to send a Minister of State. However, Deputy O'Keeffe is present and we can have a go at him. His name was mentioned previously in this debate when Senator Connor asked whether he will publish the food safety report soon.

I raised other matters too.

Yes. I am delighted that the Minister of State is here. We gathered that the senior Minister is on his way back from Cairo. Has he landed in Dublin yet? Does the Minister of State expect him to come here? Has he opened the Egyptian market? Will he stay away because he has not done that or will he come here because he has succeeded in doing it?

The Senator may find him on the River Shannon.

Is he empty handed?

He will come here if he has succeeded in opening that market. We will not see him if he comes back empty handed. That is the strategy of the senior Minister in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

I have no report on food safety. There is a study group on food quality.

I beg your pardon. I should have said food quality. I stand corrected.

How about a fresh report?

My report on food quality is being drafted. The chairman, two sub-committee chairmen and my departmental officials must have a look at it. Only then will we decide what to do.

We look forward to the Minister and the Minister of State launching that report.

I will give the Senator a copy.

A lot of technicality, conflicting reports and hype surrounds this issue. The bottom line is that people are very seriously affected by this matter. The fundamental issue, and Senator Quinn originally referred to it, is the confidence of the consumer or customer and the producer being right at all costs. It is not an understatement to say this is a national crisis which has huge repercussions across this country, not just for the producer but for all rural economies.

The approach adopted by the Department to deal with this issue will be fundamental to the lessening of the impact on rural communities. The Minister of State, Deputy Davern, referred specifically to the measures being put in place. It is very important that the question of a compensation package is dealt with in a very serious way.

I come from a rural background and I appreciate what it is like to live on a farm. I know what it is like to work with cattle, cows and calves. I also know how much trauma is inflicted on a farming family when their herd is wiped out. Recently neighbours of mine, a young couple with six very young children, had their herd wiped out. This had a traumatic effect on those parents and their children. To say it was traumatic is not an overstatement. These cases and the families concerned must be dealt with in a very compassionate way. To ease the burden of such a trauma and the financial impact, the level of hardship should be reduced. The onus is on the Department to ensure that a proper compensation package is put in place. It should alleviate any financial hardship and not aggravate the personal trauma and hardship that many people suffer during this type of crisis.

A number of interesting points were made. The Minister of State, Deputy Davern, clearly identified the number of BSE cases. We have had 561 cases since 1989. He said that the number this year to date was 126 cases, with a further three detected, giving a total of 129 cases. He also said the number is much higher this year but that the European Union Scientific Steering Committee had predicted a temporary increase. I wonder if the Department – forget Europe – had a strategy or research in place. Can the Department identify why we have had such a dramatic increase in BSE cases this year? It seems an extraordinarily high proportion given that we only had 19 cases in previous years. I can understand to a certain degree why there was an increase and why the EU steering committee predicted it. However, I am not sure this jump in numbers was expected.

Figures have been bandied about which I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, will clarify. His colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Davern, suggested that there are 1.8 million cattle over four years of age in the national herd. It was also suggested that there are 750,000 cattle over 30 months. Perhaps my mathematics are not good. I do not understand how we could have 1.8 million cattle over four years but only over 0.75 million over 30 months. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, will clarify this for me and present the correct figures towards the conclusion of this debate. There is a huge discrepancy in the figures that are being bandied about and they need to be clarified.

There is a responsibility on the Department to deal with this crisis. It must identify where BSE occurs and attempt to control and eliminate it. Various Council of Ministers meetings have been held and Ministers have introduced and agreed on a number of proposals that will be implemented in each European state. It is very important that they proceed with their work. It is vitally important that any grievances from the European member states are heard and that no state should look for a derogation. To date a number of member states have attempted to do this.

There are hundreds of thousands of tonnes of bonemeal in the European Union and there is a temptation to use it. It is very important that proper controls are put in place to ensure there is uniform application of the agreement and that the bonemeal is not used. It is vital that no member state does its own thing on this issue.

A number of suggestions have been made. I agree with the destruction of all herd and birth cohorts of animals infected with BSE. It has also been suggested that all animals over 30 months should be tested for BSE and that, as and from 1 January 2001, all at risk animals and from 1 July 2001 all animals over 30 months should be destroyed. There is a fundamental issue here. If all of these animals must be destroyed then that is the course we should take. I hate the thought of animals being slaughtered but if it is necessary to make our food chain safe then it must happen. If it must happen then the producer must be fully compensated.

I will now turn to how we will dispose of these carcases at the end of this culling process. In the past, we exported the carcases to Germany for incineration. That is fine when there are only a few carcases. However, it is suggested there will be thousands of carcases as a result of these measures and we will have to deal with them in a practical way. It is vital that we confront the fundamental issue of incineration, which is the only realistic way to dispose of these carcases properly.

Let us hear the counter arguments. What do those who make those arguments propose? Do they propose to continue the burial system under the same conditions that have existed heretofore? Is that a better alternative to incineration? I would like to hear people's views on that issue. In my view, incineration is the safest and best way in the long term. We will have to look at that prospect very seriously. There will be a lot of public discussion of the issue, which will possibly heighten tensions in certain areas. However, the bottom line is that we have yet to hear a better proposal.

We saw recently in Galway where a beast was buried, moved to another farm, reburied and then dug up and left in a yard. We cannot allow such a situation to occur again, particularly if the numbers increase to the dramatic levels that are being talked about. We have watercourses, spring wells and lakes all over the country. It would be very dangerous to take any course other than incineration.

Senator Moylan referred to the traceability issue. A few farmers have given the farming community a bad name, which is unfortunate. The overwhelming majority of farmers are decent, land loving and animal loving people. The bad publicity is unfortunate. However, at the end of the day, the consumer will decide. If the consumer does not have sufficient confidence in the meat produced in this country to consume it, we might as well not bother producing it. That is the reality. There is a responsibility on the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to ensure confidence is restored to consumers, which will mean the product will be purchased and the producer can continue in production.

I also welcome today's debate. The beef industry is currently in crisis, brought about by consumer reaction to recent reports of increased outbreaks of BSE in cattle herds in France, Germany and Spain. These countries had, up until now, failed to accept that BSE might be a problem in their cattle herds and had refused to take adequate measures to reassure customers of the safety of their beef. The result of this is that consumer confidence is shattered.

As an EU member, our beef industry is under serious threat, despite the fact that we have taken strict control measures to ensure our beef is safe. Coming from a constituency where almost all farmers are involved in beef production to some degree, I assure the House that the effects of this crisis will be felt throughout the community. Every day I hear stories from farmers who have seen the value of their stock fall by up to 25%, and in many cases have stock ready for sale that is unsaleable at present.

We can only overcome this crisis if we can restore consumer confidence by ensuring the beef we produce is of high quality and free from BSE. The scientific steering committee of the European Commission has endorsed our control measures as being the most effective for assuring consumers of the safety of the beef we eat.

I welcome the achievement by the Minister, Deputy Walsh, in negotiating with other EU Ministers a ten point plan to help overcome the current crisis. The proposals for a complete ban on meat and bonemeal, a rapid BSE detection test for all cattle over 30 months and the removal from the food chain of all animals over 30 months that do not test BSE free will help dispel consumer fears and restore confidence in beef as a healthy food.

As I stated previously, the livelihoods of many beef farmers, particularly those who winter finish cattle, are under threat because of this crisis. Many of these cattle have fallen in value by £100 or £150 per head and the projected profit, according to independent Teagasc experts, is, at best, £50 per head. It is vital that some form of compensation is put in place quickly for winter finishers. If we are to hold onto the high price markets that demand consistent supply of good quality beef throughout the year, those farmers who finish cattle in winter, when costs are at their highest, must be protected.

I urge the Minister to continue his good work in negotiating an effective compensation package for Irish beef farmers and to seek to have intervention buying opened as soon as possible to help reduce the backlog of beef that is building up on Irish farms. It is important that the intervention price is set at a level that will reimburse farmers for the cost of feeding cattle over the winter months.

The proposal that all animals over 30 months not tested and found BSE free should be slaughtered is sound and should be implemented. For this proposal to be implemented, we will have to agree to incineration. I ask all representatives to consider this in the national interest and not to play party politics with this issue. This is very important to the farming community, especially winter fatteners and beef farmers. We export up to 90% of our beef. Other people are also affected by this. The factories are practically closed and their employees, two weeks before Christmas, are not sure if they will have jobs next week because of this crisis. This is a very serious situation.

We have here all the ingredients of a major agricultural crisis. Farmers are at their wits' end not knowing what is down the road. The consumer is frightened about the quality of beef that may be on the market, now and in the future, and factory workers are uncertain about their future.

The media and the scientific community have questions to answer. Nowadays we are prone to accept as gospel everything the scientific community comes up with. In this instance science is like astronomy – astronomers and astrophysicists can trace the evolution of the universe back to the big bang, but they do not have a clue about what happened two seconds or three seconds before singularity, as they like to call it technically.

In this situation, there are many unanswered questions. If an animal gets into the food chain, as has happened, and the human variant CJD emerges in an unfortunate individual, why is there not a greater outbreak of the disease in the human form? Occasionally one cow goes down with BSE but nobody has explained why more cows do not contract it in that locality. I am sure the cow in question did not get only a teaspoon of meat and bonemeal or whatever foodstuff that caused the BSE. The feed was fed to hundreds, perhaps thousands of animals. These questions have not been answered. The incubation period of the human form of the disease can be ten years for one individual and 20 years for another and there are too many unanswered questions. The media and the public are taking as gospel the scientific assumptions, despite the fact that there is much to be proved.

I do not wish to play down the importance of the work of the scientific community on the disease, but I want more definitive answers. The public knows nothing about the science of what is happening. They read hysterical reports in the media. The beef industry is in crisis, but we need more research. The Minister should devote more funds to this area and instigate a major scientific research programme to secure definitive answers in the near future.

We cannot go on like this. We thought we had seen the last of the 1996 crisis. Continental countries who thought they were free of the disease at that time now appear to have it on their doorstep with the result that mass hysteria and public concern is re-emerging here. The concern is well justified, but the industry is too big and too many livelihoods are at stake. Families dealing with the crisis face huge trauma. This morning on the "Marian Finucane Show", a man and his wife explained how they dealt with an outbreak of the disease. They detailed the history of the episode in graphic terms and it was very moving. I ask the Minister of State to concentrate on scientific research into this area to get the answers before we become involved in more mass hysteria over the disease.

I wish to share my time with Senator Chambers.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

This is a timely debate. Other speakers said that there is the potential for a severe crisis. It takes very little to generate fear and distrust among consumers and in this instance we are walking a fine line between consumer confidence and alienation.

The focus of the debate is on food safety and the assurances we can give to consumers, at home and abroad, that the beef we produce in this country is 100% safe. The Minister and the Department have introduced many measures to address the BSE scare since it emerged in 1996. They must be complimented on regaining the markets we lost as a result of the crisis. It is unfortunate that we are linked with the rest of Europe in terms of the Egyptian market.

It is not surprising that France and Germany have been caught out eventually and have had to accept they have a problem like every other country in Europe. They reneged on their responsibilities when Ireland and other countries were trying to assure people at home and abroad that their beef was safe.

A sense of perspective is required. The Minster of State said this country has a relatively low incidence of BSE by comparison with our neighbouring country. Since 1989 there have been 561 cases here out of a herd population of 7.5 million each year. This compares with 177,000 cases in the UK – there were 37,000 cases in 1992 alone – out of a herd population of 12 million. This means that only 0.0012% of our total herd has been infected. However, it only takes a very small percentage of infection to instil fear in the public.

While we have taken responsibility for BSE over the years it is time we took responsibility for the disposal of all our waste, including animal waste. Whether we like it or not, we must consider seriously the installation of a thermal treatment plant, an incinerator. That is the only way we can fulfil our responsibilities in this regard.

I welcome the Council's decision to accept that meat and bonemeal should be banned from all animal feed for a period of six months. I agree with Senator Caffrey that many questions must still be answered. I come from a county which has a poultry industry. When will we be given 100% assurance that our poultry industry will not suffer from a condition similar to BSE? We have not been given that assurance. Senator O'Brien mentioned that the county depends on the beef industry, but it also depends on the poultry industry. My fear is that a condition similar to BSE or CJD in humans will manifest itself in the poultry industry. Perhaps we could get clarification on that issue.

I thank the House for giving me time to speak on this important issue. This is the major challenge of our time which we must face. The fact we are an island nation separated from Europe may give us an opportunity to deal with this major problem. We should be able to contain our problems within the State. The Minister of State said it is our intention to eradicate the problem. That is the challenge we face and we now have the opportunity to do so. We had to deal with problems such as tuberculosis in the past. We must deal with this problem in a more stringent and serious way.

I know farmers will pay the costs but we must make strong decisions to restore consumer confidence. We should be able to do that in co-operation with our friends in the Six Counties. We should deal with this issue firmly. We should be able to include the necessary safeguards recommended by the Commission. There is a need for fair and considered compensation for farmers when implementing the necessary changes.

Yesterday the Irish craft butchers, including small butchers with their own abattoirs, issued a statement about their produce and they came across extremely well. They have good quality meat. It is important to assure housewives that the craft butchers know the young heifers and cattle which are killed on a weekly basis and that stringent controls are applied. There is a need for consumer confidence. People will respect traditional butchers who have given a service over the years and it is important to build on that.

There is a lesson to be learned about the food chain and how one thing affects another. We should consider incineration as the answer to our problem of getting rid of waste from the beef sector in the long term. We must come up with a solution which will not backfire in the future. Incineration appears to be the way forward. Issues such as our health, the food we eat, the quality of our water and the decisions we take about waste management are interrelated. We must make the right decisions to guarantee our most important export for the future.

I thank Members and the Minister of State for their contributions.

Sitting suspended at 4.15 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.